There is a school of literary thought that holds that the true protagonist of a story is the one who is most changed by the events of the plot, who comes out the most fundamentally different. This is why Sam Gamgee is sometimes described as the main character in “The Lord of the Rings.”
When I graduated high school in 1974, I was a bit of an arrogant little shit.
The most important job I ever had didn’t pay well; it was not much above minimum wage. It didn’t impart skills: it was mindless, repetitious labor. It didn’t show me a new career path; I never wanted to do similar work again if I could help it. But this one job, alone of all the other things I have done for money, led to a fundamental change in my personality and beliefs.
When I graduated high school in 1974, I was a bit of an arrogant little shit. Not in big offensive ways. The standard Big-B Bigotries like racism and anti-semitism had never been able to take root in my head, for which I thank my highly iconoclastic parents and the happy accident of growing up in a very diverse town. Above all, I was raised to be polite, respectful and kind. But I’d gotten used to being one of the smartest people in the room, as the saying goes. Too clever for my own good, as my Mom used to say. I was going to college. I was going to be a marine biologist. I’d dive with Cousteau, save the whales, and in the evenings I’d sip champagne with French ladies in elegant dresses on the quarterdeck of the Calypso. I knew I was bright, thought I was brighter. Than most anyone. At barely eighteen, I was, ever so subtly, an intellectual snob.
Most of my weekends that summer were spent waiting to start college, riding my bike and diving on shipwrecks off the New Jersey coast. I needed a job to pay for the dive boat fares and my few other minor vices, but summer jobs were scarce that year. Luckily, my Mom, who was then a bookkeeper in a local chemical plant (a very Bayonne occupation), knew a guy. The guy she knew was the local connection between the workers at her plant and the extremely mobbed-up Teamsters Local 560 in Union City. In other words, he worked for the Gambino family. “What’s that, Gloria? The kid needs a summer job? No problem! Have him show up Monday morning a little before 8:00 over at the Korvette’s Distribution Center.” I never met the man but if he was anything like some of my truck-driving Dad’s old friends from Local 560, he dropped a lot of his final Rs and didn’t use many contractions.
That Monday, I became a member in good standing of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America.
The EJ Korvettes Distribution Center was located in Bayonne’s industrial wasteland along New York Harbor. Every day, trucks would back up to the loading docks on one end of the huge sheet-metal building . Cheap goods from all over the world would be unloaded onto long steel unpowered conveyors studded with wheels or rollers. At the other end of the conveyors, the taggers, who were all women, would put a price tag on each individual item in all of those boxes. Every day, hundreds or thousands of tags on hundreds or thousands of items. The boxes would then be put on different trucks to be shipped to individual EJ Korvettes stores in the NY/NJ area. If you shopped at a Korvettes within fifty miles of Bayonne NJ back in 1974, there is a good chance that I helped in getting what you bought onto the shelves.
My responsibility was to keep the boxes moving along those conveyors. I’d slice open the box at the tagging station, dump the box, then trot up and down the line, shifting all the boxes downstream, keeping them tight so there would always be room for more; delaying the trucks was a major sin. I had to be sure to be ready when all of the items in a box were tagged and a tagger called “READY!” so I could shove the carton onward to the guys who would re-tape it and roll it to the end of the line to be put on the local trucks. It was relentless, tiring, hot and noisy, for nine hours a day, five days a week. Business was good, and there was plenty of overtime available; I can still hear Tony the overall manager yelling at me from across the floor on a Friday afternoon; “Hey Dave, ya want OT on Saddaday?” With the occasional OT, the money was sufficient for my needs that summer.
Except for upper management, and me, pretty much the entire work force at the Distribution Center was black or Hispanic. That meant nothing to me, growing up in my diverse ‘hood, town and school system. They were also, mostly, not financially well off, which also was not unfamiliar. My family knew both times of relative plenty and times when our small local grocer’s informal credit system (“put it on the book, please”) was all that kept us from being hungry.
As the summer deepened, I got to know several of my co-workers pretty well. There was Marcelino, my direct supervisor, who could juggle the contents of all the conveyors in his head while simultaneously taking the daily numbers from those of us who indulged in a bit of illegal gambling. He taught me the difference between betting straight or box. There was Mildred, the unofficial leader of the taggers who were the entire reason for the existence of the place. Mildred was always cheerful and kind, even while wisecracking. Mildred lived in Jersey City, in the very neighborhood that we had moved out of – white-flighted out of, I realize now – fourteen years before. She enjoyed teasing me about how I’d fit right in with what she called the Bidwell Ave Mob. In quieter moments she would tell me about her kids, and how she worried about keeping them fed, housed and out of the trouble that the streets can bring. I grew very fond of Mildred, who was like an aunt, but cool.
I loved that the Spanish-speaking employees called me “Un poco loco” and meant it as a compliment. It was the first non-derisive nickname I ever had.
On those hot summer days spent within the giant corrugated steel box surrounded by similarly depressing structures, my fellow Distribution Center folk and I would work and sweat together, sit in the breakroom and shoot the breeze, or eat our lunches at the picnic tables by the food truck where we might catch some actual breezes off the nearby New York Bay. We’d talk sports or the weather or women or whatever. Often we complained about the crap that management pulled.
Crap like the fact that the women were only allowed to carry small, company-issued purses of clear plastic, so concerned was the company that someone might walk off with a fifty cent bottle of nail polish. Privacy be damned, they had to show them to a guard on the way out at the end of a shift.
Crap like the time that management decided that our two fifteen minute breaks were taking too long, so they decreed that our break time started not when we clocked out at the break room, but when the break bell rang. You could be a good three or four minutes finishing up and reaching the breakroom from the back of the building, and the same to return to your station, but you had to be in your place and ready to go when the break ended or you could get canned. The actual break was thus often less than ten minutes long. This one nearly led to a wildcat strike. Luckily the Union spoke up and the company relented; I needed the money, but if it came to it, I was Union. Dad would have disowned me if I’d crossed a picket line!
Crap like the time when the taggers requested to be allowed to sit on stools while they tagged those hundreds upon hundreds of items, but management refused to allow it because they said that it was just those lazy women wanting to “sit down on the job.” A supervisor literally said that. The union was silent this time, and the women, many of whom were no longer young, stayed on their feet for eight long hours each day.
Remember, I had always been a student. Jobs for me had been part time, after school, or working with my Dad in his business on weekends or during the summer, which was as much keeping him company on the road as it was doing the occasional bit of plumbing or carpentry. Every job I’d ever had, I knew was temporary. This was the first time I saw close-up what it was like to have a lousy job that you dare not quit. This was the first time that I saw, however dimly, the toll it can take on a person to suffer from poverty and prejudice and a lack of options, when I noticed that the managers were more courteous to me, the punk kid who was leaving in the fall, than they were to the grown women who were at the heart of the enterprise.
At the Distribution Center, I first realized that although my family was sometimes poor, we were also white. That the lives being lived by some of my friends and their families, the lives of the Goodmans across the street, or of my friend Jose up the block, might be very different from my own.
At the Distribution Center, I first realized that smart, funny and interesting people are often also truck drivers or package taggers or warehouse workers. I began to understand how much of where we wind up comes down to luck, to accidents of birth, to what Stephen Jay Gould called “contingency.”
That summer was when the first crack was made in my smug intellectual arrogance. That summer, I took my first, tentative steps on the long journey to adulthood.
When I went to clock out on my last day, Marcelino asked me to wait for him outside before I left. Soon, a group of my fellow Distribution Center folk gathered around. They shook my hand and wished me luck. Mildred came up, gave me a hug, and handed me an envelope addressed to “Un Poco Loco.” Inside was nearly two hundred dollars, in 1974 dollars, collected from my underpaid friends at the Distribution Center. “A little going away present,” she told me. “Have a great time in college!”
Big boys from Bayonne don’t cry.
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.